Great Books Aren't Written, They're Mutilated and Pieced Back Together in Groundbreaking Intensive Surgery
By S. W. Vaughn
A few weeks ago, I opened up the manuscript of my novel that's about to be published for a quick fact-check on something I needed to know for my current work-in-progress, the fourth book in my series. As I skimmed the pages, I found myself cringing at excess adverbs, dragging prose, and melodramatic over-punctuation. It was then that I came to a painful conclusion:
I had to edit the whole thing. Again.
Some wise author-- it may have been Michael Crichton-- said that great books aren't written, they're rewritten. Let me tell you: this axiom is a gross understatement. "Rewritten" is just not a strong enough word to describe the process of transforming a rough draft into a polished work. One cannot simply run spell check and call the thing a book. The editing process takes time and willingness to attack your work with hatchet and hammer. Editing is a bloody, ruthless procedure that turns authors into shrieking, self-abusing demons.
It's the most difficult phase of writing-- and it is also the most crucial.
These are your words. You will experience tremendous difficulty in stepping back to view them through the eyes of a reader, who may not be impressed with your clever comparison of your heroine's cheeks to "fleshy tennis balls" (written at three in the morning, when everything you come up with seems brilliant). However, it can be done; indeed, it must be done. Here are some tips to get you started on the editing warpath:
Distance yourself from your work. This step cannot be avoided. After you type "the end," the temptation to jump in and start contacting all those agents and editors who are dying for your masterful book is overwhelming. Resist the power of the dark side. Put your manuscript aside for at least a week, longer if you can. No peeking! Work on something else: start the next book, write your query letter if you'd like (but don't send it!), and then come back and reread the manuscript. You'll be shocked to discover how much you'll want to change.
Distance yourself from your work, part II. This technique has worked wonderfully for me. After you've been away from your manuscript, print the whole thing out, set that lovely stack of paper next to your keyboard, open a new word processing document and retype the whole bloody mess. Beginning to end. The act of keying the words in helps you regain the flow you had while you were writing it. Yes, it takes time. But it's worth it.
Adverbs are not your friends. Nor are the words had, that, up, down, over, and very. Exclamation points should be regarded as the enemy. Attack these things with enthusiasm, and eliminate them whenever possible. However, each of them can and should be used sparingly (with the exception of very. . . you never need to use that word except in extremely rare instances of dialogue). Trying to take them all out will result in some ridiculous sentence constructions reminiscent of Winston Churchill's famous tongue-in-cheek statement, "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put."
Find a trusted reader and ask him to review your work ruthlessly. Do not ask your mother or your best friend. Other writers can make good reviewers, but you can also benefit from the reaction of a voracious reader. Whomever you press into reading service, be sure to stress that you're looking for an honest reaction, not a pat on the back. And then be ready to receive an honest reaction. It's going to sting-- but it's also going to help you become a better writer.
Last but not least: when you learn a new technique that improves your writing, go back to the beginning of your manuscript and apply it consistently throughout. Every single time. Even if you already have queries out; even after you've already rewritten the thing six times. Make it seven. The only thing that should stop you from working toward a better book is publication. By then, it's too late.
I scoured, edited, and rewrote the manuscript of my debut novel Fallen Angel eight times, with plenty of minor tweaking sessions in between. The last time, a few weeks ago, followed a frantic phone call to my publisher. My end of the conversation went something like this: "Why did you agree to publish this dreck? My prose is horrible! Look at all these adverbs. . . have you seen this line on page 154? Please, for God's sake, don't ever let anyone read this steaming pile of cow dung. I have to fix it. Give me three days, okay? Maybe four. . . "
Fortunately, my publisher understood. She's an author, too.
After the anxiety attack, I locked myself in the operating room and went at it. What emerged was a better manuscript, which is now firmly entrenched in the pre-publication process. In other words: it's too late for me now. I can't change another word. But if it's not too late for you, go forth and edit with as much passion as you put into writing.
Here… you can borrow my scalpel.
S. W. Vaughn is a thriller novelist and a merciless back seat editor who yells at innocent grocery store clerks for confusing 'its' and 'it's.' Unfortunately, when it comes to her own work she has a bit of a blind spot. Visit her official website at www.swvaughn.com or e-mail Vaughn at firstname.lastname@example.org any time -- and she promises to try real hard not to reply with cross-outs and red ink.
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